Date: March 13, 1938
A Prayer for Comfort
God, a mighty Fortress for the oppressed, our Refuge in all temptation:
For the sake of the bleeding sorrows of Thy Son, our Savior, forgive us our repeated transgressions. We put our trust entirely in Christ’s overabundant grace and know that because of Him Thou wilt not utterly forsake us, even though we have forsaken Thee. Thou who art Grace and Truth and Power, we ask Thee to make our faith a trust so beautiful and radiant that through Jesus we can find advantage in every affliction. When it seems that calamity is our continuing heritage and we are ready to sink into complaint and self-pity, let us find relief for our burdened hearts in Thy fatherly love. Control over life and death alike is Thine; and because at times we discern Thee only dimly, give us a clearer vision of Christ’s pardoning love. Take possession of our wills that we may not waste our energies in futile worry and vain regrets but find refuge under the shadow of Thy wing. In the multitude of our needs let us not overlook the needs of others. Rather give us a practical sympathy with their sufferings. Call us constantly to repentance and ever send us Thy Spirit with the assurance of Thine unfailing companionship in every lonely hour. Hear us in the name of the blessed Friend of sinners and Conqueror of sin, Jesus Christ, our Savior! Amen.
Ye . . . shall leave Me alone: and yet I am not alone because the Father is with Me. – John 16:32
TWO hundred years ago, in the French and Indian War, nine-year-old Regina Hartmann and her young sister were captured by a band of marauding Indians near their home in Eastern Pennsylvania and forced to march more than four hundred miles through untracked forests, over the high Alleghenies, across treacherous rivers, to the camping-grounds of the red men. Here Regina, separated from her sister, completely detached from the world of her own people, grew up the berated slave of a cruel squaw. Gradually the habits of Indian life began to change Regina; yet never, in gloomy forests or dirty wigwams, could she escape an overpowering sense of loneliness and desertion. That bitter darkness was brightened by only one ray of hope—her faith in Christ and the sustaining power of prayer. Hers were God-fearing parents, and her father especially had taught his daughters many hymns and prayers. One of the sacred songs she could never forget; over the frenzy of war-whoops and in silent midnights she could hear it; of all hymns she remembered that this one was written for her since its first lines read: “Alone, and yet not all alone, I am in this my loneliness.” Often, when the vigilance of the squaw relaxed, the captive maiden would steal into the forest, kneel down in prayer, and then raise her voice to sing confidently: “Alone, and yet not all alone.” In this way she kept Christ as her Friend and Guide. After nine terrifying years the Indians were defeated, and by the terms of the treaty of peace all white prisoners were to be released. From many sections of Pennsylvania eager relatives hastened to Carlisle, where the prisoners were to be restored to their families. Heartbreaking as it seemed, those long years with the Indians had wrought such changes that Mrs. Hartmann could not identify her daughter; but when the mother hopefully recalled that her child had learned a number of hymns, mentioning the opening lines of several favorites, a young woman stepped forward from the ranks of the ex-captives and, strangely moved, began to sing: “Alone, and yet not all alone am I.” That song, together with other childhood hymns, completed the recognition, and in a moment mother and daughter were locked in each other’s embrace, shedding tears of joy over their happy reunion.
Pennsylvanians are projecting a monument to the memory of Regina Hartmann; but let us throughout the nation rather dedicate in the shrine of our hearts a memorial to her unwavering assurance of the Savior’s constant companionship during the pain of that loneliness.
Few sorrows are more widespread than the feeling of isolation, the suffering when one is destitute of all human help, deprived of all human hope, when no one in the wide world can understand one’s problems and solve one’s perplexities. Many of you know the pitiless pressure of that inner loneliness, and at some time all of you will experience that pain of solitude. You mothers deserted by your husbands; you young folks, with your dreams of married happiness cruelly shattered; you the aged, advancing beyond the threescore and ten, the fourscore, and, as some of you write, the century milestone of life, only to see your friends fall by the wayside, one after the other; you the bereaved, from whom death has snatched one whose happiness you held dearer than your own; above all, you whom sin has terrorized, who find yourselves lost in life, without a guide, without a goal,—you know that inner loneliness, that carrying of a burden which no one else can share, that standing alone on the crossroads of life where no friend can take your hand to direct you, that suffering of a harshness which no human sympathy can soften.
While all human remedies offer no guarantee against loneliness, we have, thank God, a divine cure that operates, not with surgery, medicine, psychology, but through our blessed Lord Jesus Christ and the constant companionship through which He enriches the lives of His children. With Him as our Savior and Friend, we, too, can face the most abysmal loneliness of life and still exult:
“ALONE, YET NOT ALONE,”
for through faith we understand the deep meaning of His words “Ye . . . shall leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone because the Father is with Me,” Saint John 16:32.
CHRIST’S CONFIDENCE IN THE LONELINESS OF HIS SUFFERING
These sad words “Ye . . . shall leave Me alone” were among the last addressed by Christ to His disciples; and little did they realize how soon this prophecy of their desertion and cowardice would be fulfilled. A few hours after Jesus had left the upper room, we find Him, as the Passover’s silver moon bathes the Garden of Gethsemane in its soft whiteness, kneeling alone in the last hour before His betrayal and arrest. He might have avoided that Garden, the spot where, as He knew, Judas, the hirelings of the churchmen, the brutal soldiers, and the bloodthirsty, armed mob would soon crush in on Him. He might have swayed the fickle holiday crowd in Jerusalem to acclaim Him and to turn against the jealousy of the priests, for a miracle could have transformed Him from a public enemy to a popular hero. He might have led the masses to revive their plan of placing the kingly crown upon His brow; a few loaves of bread, multiplied for the mob, would have made them clamor for His bountiful rule. But instead, Jesus walks resolutely into the shadows of Gethsemane and the hands of His murderers. He deliberately prepares to strengthen Himself against the cry of angry voices shrieking for His blood, to receive, not the diadem of royalty, but the cutting crown of thorns. His hour has come, the hour that long before had caused Him to shudder; and from that moment until His death-cry on the cross His soul was to be racked by agony, continuous and unrelenting.
So terrifying was the foreknowledge of this anguish that our blessed Savior yearned for the cheering, sustaining presence of His disciples, who could share His sorrows and whisper words of comfort to His sorrow-burdened soul. While eight of the disciples waited without the Garden, three, Peter, James, and John, the privileged group chosen to witness the transfiguration, the greatest display of the Savior’s glory, the three selected to behold the miracle of raising the daughter of Jairus, were now admitted into the sacred intimacy of His deep suffering.
Never has there been any agony like Christ’s. Listen to Him as His quavering voice breaks the stillness of the Garden to cry, “My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.” These words mean just what they say—the sorrow of Gethsemane almost killed the blessed Christ. Only a little more and the weight of these woes would have ended His life. The sweat that falls from His pallid face and His tortured body as great drops of blood; the desolate cry of a breaking heart; the angel that revives the Christ of God—all these grip us, even today in our callous existence, as the beginning of the cruelest torture. that ever racked the soul of a sufferer.
“Why,” we ask, “did such terror lay its trembling hold on Jesus?” Was His a sensitive soul, that shrank from the disgrace of His arrest and the shame of the cross? That cannot be the answer to the mystery of His suffering; for how serenely had He withstood the sneers and blasphemies of those who had said that He, the Son of God, was allied with the devil! Did Jesus shudder in fear of the death that before another day had ended would claim His life? Death would have been a sweet relief from His suffering in the Garden. Many of you have witnessed what transcendent happiness the last hour can bring; you have seen how some of your own beloved ones have smilingly welcomed the end. Surely He who blesses the life and the death of His own would show even more courage and joy and resolution in the face of death than did that great company of Christian martyrs in the first centuries and in the twentieth, whose faltering lips spoke of hope and joy and peace.
We understand Gethsemane only when we realize that Jesus endured these infinite agonies because God “hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” To bear the sins of all the world; to pay the whole price demanded for the ransom of the wrongs of all mankind; to be made “sin for us,” although He Himself “knew no sin,” to feel in these hours the penalty of the accumulated wickedness of all the centuries,—that was the soul agony that almost took the Savior’s life.
How lightly and quickly have many accustomed themselves to say, “Jesus bore the sins of all the world”! Oh, how little we understand the consequences of our own sins! Think of the tragedies provoked by a single transgression of God’s Law. A thought of hatred that makes a man a murderer, a word of lust that finally breaks the happiness of the family, an act of selfish grasping that ultimately throws nations into long and bloody wars, such is the price that men pay for sin here on earth. What of the far greater consequences after this life, the appalling penalty of eternal death, everlasting punishment, perpetual banishment from God? If that is the wreck and ruin of one unforgiven sin, how terrifying the burden of all human transgressions borne by our Savior!
No wonder Jesus shrinks from being left alone in the dread hour of this ordeal and pleads with the three disciples to watch and pray with Him. It is a small request He asks, this death-watch; we grant it willingly today even to the coarsest murderer. The devotion of the disciples should count it one of their holiest privileges! Hardly has Jesus knelt down, only a short distance from those who in the beginning had been chosen “that they should be with Him,” when the very disciples who had unhesitatingly promised to drink the cup that He would drink, selfconfident Peter, who a few moments before had earnestly pledged that, if all were to desert Christ, his loyalty would remain untamished,—hardly had Jesus begun His prayer when His death-watch sank in heavy slumber, overcome by exhaustion and sorrow.
We are distressed by this drowsy indifference to the sufferings of Christ’s torn soul, and we wonder how these companions of Christ, blessed as no other human beings had ever been blessed, could have remained aloof from the Savior’s suffering as He began His descent into His valley of the shadow of death. Before we make comparisons, let us be honest enough to admit that today, too, a sleepy world neglects its Christ. Statesmen have closed their eyes to the great soul needs of the hour and have bitterly opposed Jesus. Even churches slumber on, in distracted indifference toward the cross of Christ, churches that are ready to take up the sword and fervently launch secular programs but that drug themselves into a stupor regarding the great central doctrine of the Bible, the divine atonement through Christ. If all the churches in the United States and Canada were awake and alert, would we be caught in the present chaos? Do you think that, if the Christian forces of America were watching and praying with Christ instead of lulling their followers, as many churches do, into dreams of sweet security and singing lullabies about man’s eternal goodness, spiritual life would recede to its frequent low ebb? Do you really think that, if a sacred vigilance would shake the sleeping churches out of their complacency, their desire for the comfortable Christianity that does not like to offend the non-Christian, that preaches the same message to the Jew, the Mohammedan, the Christian, we would have the weak, wilting caricature of Christianity which we behold on all sides? O God, arouse us from this stupor; shake our souls, so that out of this blight of indifference to Christ there may come forth a new, watchful, prayerful generation! Awaken some of us today who from this hour on will kneel with Christ and work with Christ and gain their victory through Christ!
For that victory we need a firmly grounded faith, not the hot and cold, strong and weak, fire-and-ashes type of faith that in one moment cries “Hallelujah!” and in the next changes to “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” The trouble with the sleeping disciples was that their belief fluctuated with their emotions; and today the call of the hour is not for emotionalism but for sound, Scriptural indoctrination, a full, clear, reverent understanding of Jesus and His atoning love, in the pulpit and the pew.
Christ in the Garden has been the loneliest figure of all history. Today we glorify loneliness that makes newspaper headlines, when solitary scientists, like Admiral Byrd, isolate themselves in the frozen fastnesses of Little America or when intrepid adventurers like Colonel Lindbergh, the Lone Eagle, blaze new air trails, alone in the dark and icy skies between two continents, with the black waters yawning below. We marvel at the majestic solitude of those who, championing truth and right, tower to solitary heights above their fellow-men and their age: Lincoln, the loneliest of all the Presidents, or Martin Luther, the lone monk, who defied a world arrayed against him. Yet their burden of solitude cannot even bear comparison with the sinking loneliness of Jesus. “Then all the disciples forsook Him and fled,” we read, in fulfilment of His warning “Ye . . . shall leave Me alone.” Alone He stood before Caiaphas and Pilate; for among the many whom He had helped in their body and soul and mind not one was grateful and faithful enough to stay with Him. Alone He faced the perjury and the blasphemy of His fellow-countrymen. Alone He received the death-sentence, and even the Talmud, commenting on His solitary sufferings, contains the legend that for forty days before Jesus’ death a herald hastened throughout Judea to ask if there were any who would intercede for Him; but no one, the Talmud concludes, pleaded His cause. Alone He died on the cross, without a single human voice raised to defend Him or a human hand lifted to help Him. How true His mournful prediction “Ye . . . shall leave Me alone”!
Bowed by the weight of all sin, Jesus still could say: “And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.” As we discover Him in the Garden deserted by His disciples and behold His pathetic figure dimly etched against the April moonlight, we see that Christ knew where to find unfailing strength, courage, and companionship for that last loneliness. He turns to God and prays the most penetrating prayer that can ever reach the Almighty. Confronted by the curse of our sin, His piercing cry rings through the silence of the night: “O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt.” Three times He pleads with God, and finally He is steeled for His suffering. His own might forsakes Him, but His Father had given Him the assurance “I am not alone.” Except in that deepest suffering, when the divine wrath against sin spent its fury on His soul and He screamed: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” He was not deserted; and because the unutterable love of God, who “spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all,” was with Christ, the cross was not the final chapter, the grave was not the end. That trust in His heavenly Father was not misplaced; God gloriously raised Him from the dead to prove the truth of His confidence: “Alone, . . . yet . . . not alone, because the Father is with Me.”
THE CHRISTIAN’S CONFIDENCE DURING HIS LONELINESS
None of us can live completely beyond the overreaching shadow of loneliness. Money cannot buy exemption from its depressing power; for some of the wealthiest people I know are the loneliest. Culture cannot secure the release from its black spell; for it is said that the man who owns one of the greatest chains of newspapers in the world forbids every one to mention death in his presence. Nor has political power kept great leaders from experiencing that forsaken, banished feeling which robs life of its peace. Think of exiled Napoleon pacing the sands of St. Helena or of Nicolai Lenin, helpless despite his dictatorial powers, dying a pathetic death while the physicians clustered about his bedside engage in cold, disinterested bantering!
As we see the Christ of Gethsemane, behold His blanched face, clenched hands, lips parted in agonized prayer, great drops of death-sweat falling from His body, His disciples vanished into the background, the darkness almost rumbling overhead, yet withal the face of Christ and His eyes of trust directed heavenward to God, let us remember that whatever burden of loneliness may weigh us down, He has promised: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world”; that, no matter how dark the road, our faith in Him enables us to feel His abiding presence, to grasp His strengthening hand, to experience the truth of His promise: “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”
See how gloriously Christ, who through faith in Him restores us to the open arms of His Father, can enrich our empty lives! Many of you are troubled by secret sins. They isolate you, build a wall around you, cut off your happiness. A distracted young woman in the South, uncertain of Christ’s pardon and forgiveness, writes that the peace of her soul has vanished. The young man to whom she was engaged has suddenly married some one else, and the shock of this desertion, recalling an unholy transgression of God’s Law, makes that young woman feel alone in a drab and grasping world. To her and to the ten times ten thousand others whose loneliness is the same in principle and whose sorrow is only different in kind I say: Behold the forsaken Savior once more and with penitent hearts believe that just as soon as you can say in trusting faith: “O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me, grant me Thy peace,”—your loneliness is over; you have a heavenly champion “that sticketh closer than a brother.” Let His grace enrich your poor, lonely, joy-starved hearts! Trust Him and His never-failing, close-at-hand guidance, His blood-bought cleansing of your soul, and you will know that, if all else in life disappears and the closest ties of blood and friendship are severed, yet with Him at your side, you can say: “Alone . . . yet . . . not alone.”
How many of you there are who are earnestly striving for a better, cleaner, purer life! Your conscience is burdened by the tragedy that, against your better knowledge and with fatal frequency, you succumb to unholy impulses. You want to defeat sin and live closer to God. Thousands of you young men and women want to lead clean, chaste lives and keep yourselves pure for your life’s companion; and yet, try as you may, it seems to many of you that you are fighting a solitary battle against unnumbered foes, that temptations crowd in to support the lustful longings of your all too human heart and our Christless world. To you I say in the name of this lonely Christ and the words of our beloved hymn:
Go to dark Gethsemane,
Ye that feel the Tempter’s power;
Your Redeemer’s conflict see,
Watch with Him one bitter hour;
Turn not from His griefs away,
Learn of Jesus Christ to pray.
When you men and women trying to break the slavery of some degrading sin watch and pray with Christ, you will not be alone; you will have the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and the resources of this triumphant Trinity to assure you of the blessed answer. Once you learn to pray with Christ in the name of His holy love and in reliance on His divine grace, you will have the strength of Heaven to help you overcome earth’s weakness.
This week has brought again scores of those shattering letters that teach us anew how much sorrow can be crowded into a home or a heart. Another tearful account of a child of fourteen months that will never be able to sit up, never be able to speak or smile or think! Another story of terrifying death on the highway with a brave patrol officer cut down by a hit-and-run driver! A poor demented sufferer staggers into my office to claim that he is the crucified Christ Himself! An only son snatched from the land of the living! How cruel life sometimes seems and how lonely and forsaken the empty hearts of the afflicted! Yet—praise be to the eternal love that will not let us go!—the deepest tragedies cannot find us alone if we are Christ’s. As the broken grave on Easter came after the cross of Good Friday, once we are Christ’s, our sorrows will turn to our greater good, and after the sufferings of this time will come the celestial glories, where there is no loneliness, no parting.
Say to Jesus now: “Take Thou my hand and lead me O’er life’s rough way,” and as your heart of faith glows with His blessed presence, He will stand at your side in sickness, in loss, when the mortgage is foreclosed on your home, when the floods sweep it away, when family troubles arise, when you find yourself, as thousands of you do, isolated because of your sins and imprisoned! Take Christ, particularly in preparation for that final journey when only He can accompany you, when you leave all else behind and as a solitary traveler launch out alone, to worlds unseen. For if you, watching and praying with Christ in the Garden, have that triumphant faith which penitently seeks His sure mercies, there will never be any sorrow, any fear of death, in which, beholding Christ, you can declare: “I am ‘alone . . . yet . . . not alone,’ because through Christ my gracious, loving, forgiving Father in heaven is with me now and forever.” God grant you all this abiding blessing—Christ in your soul and life. Amen!
Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.